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Caves of Steel takes place in a future New York City. On the overpopulated future Earth, cities are gigantic metropolises encased under steel domes where people live in cramped conditions and subsist on processed food, never seeing the sky. In contrast, the Spacer worlds, human-colonized planets which severed political ties with Earth long ago, are utopian locales of low population, plentiful resources, massive military power, and economies based on the widescale use of robots for manual labor.
It is in this New York that a murder is committed: the victim is a Spacer, one of the residents of Spacetown, the Spacer outpost in New York. It is suspected that one of the motives was anti-robot sentiments; the victim was a roboticist who was working on the large-scale introduction of robot labor into Earth's economy, a desire opposed by most of the populace - sometimes to the point of terrorist aggression. If the murderer is not found--fast--a major diplomatic incident looms.
The investigator is Elijah "Lije" Baley, whose Spacer-assigned partner will be an android, R. Daneel Olivaw, a new type of robot externally indistinguishable from a human. The opposition between Lije's impulsiveness and unorthodox methods, and Daneel's pure logical thinking and adherence to the law and procedure, is a theme throughout much of the book. Another theme is the nature of the society of Earth's Cities and how stable it is in the long run.
The Caves Of Steel was followed by two sequel novels, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn (and a short story, "Mirror Image", set between the two). After the resolution of the first case, Baley's reputation leads to him traveling to the Spacers' homeworlds to work with Daneel in solving other murder cases with wider political implications.
The series reached a finale of sorts in Robots and Empire, set years after The Robots of Dawn; the story mainly served to merge Daneel's story into the Myth Arc of Asimov's "Galactic Empire" and Foundation stories.
The novel provides examples of:
- Always Someone Better: Daneel is stronger than Lije, smarter than Lije, and never needs to rest or eat; Lije has to worry about the robot solving the case before him, and every aspect of the robot's superiority is seen as a threat to his job.
- Author Appeal: The crowded underground cities of Earth would be hellish to a claustrophobe, but Asimov was a claustrophile.
- Androids and Detectives: The Ur Example.
- As You Know: Characters spend a lot of time explaining the Three Laws of Robotics to each other.
- Batman Gambit: Several.
- The Spacers (or at least Sarton and Fastolfe's faction) were deliberately trying to destabilize Earth's economy by "encouraging" the use of robots. They wanted to create a large population of unrooted, dissatisfied people who would be willing to become the foundation of a new wave of colonists, avoiding the flaws of both Earth and Spacer societies.
- Daneel was created to be an undercover observer of Earth society to discover the problems in the plan before Sarton's murder. Repurposing Daneel as a detective was primarily an excuse for him to fulfill his original mission.
- Big Applesauce
- Born in the Wrong Century: There are plenty of "medievalists" in the future who long for better days of the Medieval Era, which by this time refers to the Late Twentieth/Early Twenty-First centuries. Most of the people of Earth are medievalists in one fashion or another, usually manifesting itself in some minor personal foible. Elijah himself likes to read a lot about the old days, and Enderby, Lije's boss, uses such bizarrely anachronistic things as windows and eyeglasses.
- Chekhov's Gun: At the very beginning of the book, Lije notices that Enderby is wearing new glasses, as he broke his old pair. At the end of the novel, this seemingly random bit of information ends up becoming the piece that puts the whole case together for Lije.
- Chekhov's Gunman: R. Sammy.
- Concepts Are Cheap: Played with. When told that Daneel is programmed with a "justice circuit," Elijah claims this is impossible because justice is too abstract and hard to define. However, Daneel has a much simpler definition of justice, "That which exists when all laws are enforced." He does develop a more nuanced view by the end of the novel.
- Cranial Processing Unit: Inherent to all robots.
- Cyberpunk: The City anticipates the dystopian urban landscape of Cyberpunk, almost 30 years before Blade Runner and William Gibson, but it was not necessarily intended to be dystopian. The idea of a vast, totally enclosed city did not bother Asimov at all (See Author Appeal).
- Domed Hometown: All the cities of Earth (and what is, in our time, known as the "greater metropolitan area" thereof) are enclosed under massive domes.
- Dropped Glasses: Critical to the case.
- Eating Machine: Daneel, thanks to a compartment hidden within his stomach, all to better impersonate a human. He does not derive any actual nutrition from the food, and needs to regularly empty his stomach sack to prevent the food from spoiling and emitting an unpleasant odor. Daneel promises that the food is still edible when Lije misses a meal, but Baley refuses the offer.
- Eureka Moment: Elijah figures out the answer to the mystery when Daneel casually brings up Enderby's glasses.
- Fair Play Whodunnit
- Fantastic Racism: Robots are addressed as "boy," lack permission to travel in the high-class means of transportation and are treated with general contempt by Earth's inhabitants. One of the major bones of contention is that they have come to Earth and are taking jobs away from the local humans. Significantly, R. Sammy may have been named for a racial slur once used to describe people from India.
- Genre Busting: Sci-fi robot detective stories.
- Go and Sin No More: Said word-for-word by Daneel to the police chief.
- Manic Pixie Dream Girl: Jessie was when she and Elijah met, but she has mellowed by the time of the novel itself.
"Oh, goodness," (Jesse) said, "what if you do look like an awful lemon? I know you're not really, and I guess if you were always grinning away like I do, we'd just explode when we got together. You stay the way you are, Lije, and keep me from floating away."
- Mega City: Where the population of Earth lives. On average, 11.2 million in each city. The government's of three large cities (New York, Philadelphia and Washington) are considering merging into one single Mega Mega City, but the logistics of maintaining and governing such a large conglomerate have so far prevented any action on the plan.
- Murder by Mistake: Dr. Sarton was killed by a shot intended for R. Daneel (who was built to resembled his creator).
- Never Accepted in His Hometown: The Robots were created, developed and mass produced right on Earth almost three thousand years before the beginning of the novel, and were integral in the technological revolution that lead to space-travel, food for the whole planet and world peace, but they were never accepted into Earth society and were completely banned from the planet soon after their creation. It is only through the direct intervention of the Spacers, who have completely integrated robots into their way of life, that they are even beginning to merge with the Earthlings.
- Not with the Safety On, You Won't: Elijah is understandably disturbed when the ostensibly "Three Laws"-Compliant Daneel resolves the potential riot at the shoe store by threatening to use a lethal weapon. Daneel explains to his partner that the weapon was not loaded, and that even if it had been loaded, the futuristic equivalent of the firing pin was missing; after all, if it had been otherwise, it would have been possible for him to accidentally injure a human being, something Daneel finds unthinkable.
- Only Electric Sheep Are Cheap: Natural (non-processed) food is a luxury good.
- Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions: The Spacers have abandoned religion long ago.
- Pick Your Human Half: Daneel has humanlike appearance and robotic psyche.
- Poke the Poodle: Elijah's defense of the biblical Jezebel destroyed his wife Jesse's self-image as a naughty girl. So to prove herself, she joins the revolutionary Medievalists... or at least a society they operate for bored housewives that meets for snacks and the occasional revolutionary speaker. Jessie does tell the group that she thinks Daneel is a robot, but she almost immediately panics and wonders what she's done.
- Population Control
- Really Seven Hundred Years Old: The Spacers have a very long life expectancy, much to the surprise of Earthlings who think them younger than they are.
- Reassigned to Antarctica: Declassification. If you are deemed unfit for your job, or your field itself is rendered obsolete, you lose your rating (A combined social/economic scale that determines housing, income, food, etc.) and are given menial busy work to justify the subsistence-level rations and housing the government gives you. Elijah still vividly remembers when this happened to his father, and how his family was destroyed in the aftermath. The fear of going through this is a constant threat throughout the case.
- Robot Me: Daneel was made to be identical to his creator. This becomes the basis of one wrong theory on part of Lije and is the critical component in solving the murder - the murderer was after Daneel and accidentally shot his creator instead.
- Science Marches On: Earth has become so overpopulated that almost all of the Earth's surface area must be converted to farmland, with the populace stuffed into overcrowded mega-cities where a socialist government carefully rations food, water, and resources and people are lucky if they have a sink of their own in their apartment. The total population of this teeming dystopia? Eight billion, which is just a billion or so (give or take) from the actual world population in 2011.The novel was written before the Green Revolution, which dramatically increased Earth's carrying capacity.
- Terrified of Germs: The Spacers are paranoid about being infected with human microbes. On their utopian planets they have no disease and their immune systems have decayed as a result.
- To Be Lawful or Good: Understanding that the conflict even exists, much less wrestling with it, is a big part of R. Daneel's Character Development.
- The Un-Smile
R. Daneel smiled. The gesture was sudden and surprising. His lips curled back and the skin about either end folded. Only the mouth smiled, however. The rest of the robot's face was untouched.
- Uncanny Valley: In-universe, one of the reasons why robots - at least the current generation - are so unpopular on Earth; they are clunky mechanical units with disturbing facsimiles of permanently-smiling human faces on their "heads." Daneel is an attempt by his creator to avert this.
- Wandering Jew: The legend of the Wandering Londoner appears to be the equivalent for Baley.
- We Will Have Perfect Health in the Future: Most notable in the friction between Spacers and Earthmen. Earthers have lifespans comparable to 20th century Americans, while the eugenically-perfected Spacers tend not to experience "middle age" until turning 250 or so. They enforce this with careful control the microbes introduced to their worlds from Earthers, and look down on the filthy, disgusting, shortlived Earthmen. The Spacers' weakened immune systems mean that when an Earthman visits, the visitor has to be thoroughly sterilized and most of the Spacers wear gloves and nose-plugs and keep their distance.
- We Will Use Manual Labor in the Future: A major source of contention between Earthlings and the Spacers is the refusal of Earth to stop using manual labor. Robots could do all the work better, faster and safer for only a fraction of the cost, and are one of the key reasons for the utopian societies of the Spacers, but their introduction to Earth society is being resisted (Sometimes violently) because they will displace so much of the human workforce.
- When the Clock Strikes Twelve: Near the end of the book, Daneel notifies Lije that, since he's gathered the information Fastolfe wanted about Earther society, the investigation is being ended that day. Desperately worried about the consequences failure would have for his career, and with a brand-new Eureka Moment running through his mind, Baley manages to persuade his robot partner that they're still on the case until the day ends at midnight. Sure enough, they manage to extract a confession from the murderer right at the stroke of 12.